Jade and I were quick to get to bed to have the morn ever quicker upon us. I felt like a little tyke on christmas, eve, as my soul itched for a little adventure. We got ready and ate a mostly failed breakfast, my french toast skills were not up to par that morning. We finished up and piled into the car to get going. Mile after mile of the greenest and most gentle rolling hills were our path. It was as if a giant was shaking a giant green blanket and you had the privilege to ride the waves into infinity. We had no expectations, and the only plan was to visit Fontenay Abbey somewhere off in that immense countryside. Our first stop was one that I wouldn’t have expected, or probably have asked for. Coming upon a roundabout Jades mom suddenly pulled the car over. In the middle of the roundabout was a hand reaching into the sky with a pair of grapes in its hand. A monument that I would have not given a moments thought to once we’d have passed it normally. But as Jade and I stood there in the shadows of the grapes, staring upon it, the monument suddenly gained more significance and a sort of grandeur that was something to behold. It was not just some piece of concrete with some metal dangling from its hand. You could see the passion and time that went into crafting its sleekness. Getting the fingers that were reaching for the heavens just right. We got back in the car and continued.
Now I’ve seen many kinds of land in my life. Lands of the west that are bare and stretch out untill the horizon swallows them up whole. Every lizard, sagebrush, and grain of sand alike. Even the lands in the south, where you feel lost in all the woods as they push in around you. Closterphobic and crowding the horizon. Or deeper south where the trees give way to bog and moss while the humidity hangs heavy. YET These lands in France were some of which I’ve never seen before. It was an experience and sight completely foreign to my wide eyes. Miles of field after field of vines. Rolling with the hills into the far off distance. It was the most of one thing I’d ever seen in a place. And then Jade goes and tells me that every year all those billions of grapes on those millions of vines stretching over a hundred hills have to be picked by hand. Can you imagine ? The sun on your back while your fingers become master of some age-old trade. If only I was some vagabond without commitment and a headful of whims. We followed the road and passed by a handful of old castles and estates, none of which I remember the name of. They were all closed and sort of blured together. But we finally pulled up to the Abbey. Hidden in the forest, next to the waters and stones of France. I wanted instantly to know everything about this place. My mind began to wrestle with all the possibilities of why it might be here. All I knew was that UNESCO had it listed as a world heritage site. I looked at Jade. ‘Do you know anything about this place ?’ She shook her head, asked her mom, and translated back. ‘No she’s never been here before either.’ It didn’t look like much upon approach, just a humble handful of old buildings. We entered the visitors center and purchased our tickets and gave a quick look around the store. Minutes later the door to the grounds were opening. Exiting into the actual abbey was stepping into a simple and beautiful plac of the past. Jade had to rush off to the toilet, which gave me a few minutes to scan the pamphlet we recieved with the purchase of our ticket. I read. ‘The abbey of Fontenay was founded by saint Bernard in 1118.’ I reread the line a few times trying to wrap my head around the concept. 897 years old. My eyes tore apart the courtyard we were standing in. With its paths leading from here to there. A huge tree, as tall as the Arc De Triumph, and only a few years younger than America loomed over it all. Fountains and canals, with gardens off to the side took up the other space around us. While the whole area was all encapsulated by buildings that old monks use to occupy. Men who wanted nothing more than a simple and self-sufficient life. Devoted to God and discipline. What a different time.
Jades Mom finally got to use that good ol’ camera of hers. Capturing the moments as Jade and I walked through the Abbey. It’s columns, stairs, benches and grounds became a play ground for our pictures. Jumping up between arches, and hiding behind bushes; we worked our way around the abbey. Admiring the beauty and history of it all.
We eventually left the abbey and made our way back to the car. After a few more miles we came upon the real life Rohan from Tolkiens middle earth. It was a hill springing up from a vast countryside. Crowned by a ring of trees with Magdalenes Church that shined as its gem. It was the town of Vezelay that climbed the spine of the hill leading to the church. We exited the car and began our pilgrimage up the hill. Although the architecture of the buildings and town was old, it was still laid out in a way that opened everything up. With benches, squares and terraces everywhere. Allowing the town to breath and encouraged the mingling of life and ideas. It quickly reserved a high place in my heart.
We began up the hill untill we found some old vintage shop. The shelves, tops of tables, and every inch of the store were lined with piece upon piece. All the items were just cleaned up and overpriced trinkets and items from someones forgotten attic or cellar though. But it was all very French looking, so it was appealing to your average tourist. Looking to find that unique French souvenir hidden away in some corner. Overlooked and unsought for by the rest of the world untill it’s discover by them. Oddly enough that sort of shop seemed to be the theme and consistent as we continued up that holly hill.
The top of the path opened upon a huge courtyard that held the church’s tall arches and single tower. This church had been in that area for about as long as the abbey had, but with a much bloodier and ever-changing history. We walked its halls and admired the simple huge beauty of it all. We exited into its courtyard which provided our first view off of the hill-top. The land below us bulged out and rolled off on into the horizon. Fields of green were dissected by darker straight lines of trees and pockets of forest. But it was all so vast and seemingly timeless. It took our words away. Our journey back down the hill was a much faster one. Heading down we noticed that the middle of the road was adorned every so often with iron sea shells. Which we figured out were markers for some famous old pilgrimage. It made me feel as if I’d cheated some sacred right of passage by going directly to the church and not partaking in the rest of the rituals and realizations of the pilgrimage. I was saddened that I’d never get to see this place as holly or as grand as those pilgrims once did. I turned back and looked at the church one last time before we left. The drive home seemed to be the quickest part of the day. Just passing houses and roads, things we’d already seen hundreds of that day. I was glad however to have had the chance to see more of my current country. To have escaped Paris’ walls and cobbled streets for a few days to taste fresher air. My spirits felt lifted and some how more whole.